Wednesday, December 29, 2010
At the Sunset of Time
What would it be like to watch the the end of the society you know? To watch free thinking, philosophy and scientific exploration driven into the shadows as fake populist dogma turns regular people into mobs of violent know-nothings? No, it's not the Teabagger Story, it's a wonderful movie I just watched called "Agora." Directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Agora tells the story of the philosopher Hypatia in late Roman-empire Egypt. While apparently a big hit in Europe, the film received limited distribution in the U.S. and is just recently out on DVD.
Hypatia was the daughter of a noted Pagan philosopher and mathematician in the Hellenic tradition and became a noted figure in her own right. Rome had officially converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and by the time the movie is set in the early fifth century, Christianity is sweeping Alexandria and threatening the cultural balance in a cosmpolitan city where Pagans, Jews and Christians seem to exist in relative harmony. The Pagans guard the legacy of science and learning in their library where the rescued scrolls from the earlier classical library of Alexandria have been preserved. Christians sweep to power and their intolerance soon victimizes the Pagans and Jews. Since it's historical fact, it's not ruining the movie to note that it ends with Hypatia being accused of being a witch and being murdered by a Christian mob.
I found the movie quite moving. Where it could easily have been an average sword-and-sandal epic, it's actually quite brave in its narrative and sensibility, and quite spiritual in its contemplation of someone on the verge of cosmic understanding at the same time she sees the world around her descend into darkness. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia is given an unusual role: the brainy, intellectual heroine of the film, a woman who rejects sensual physicality in favor of more heady pursuits. The Pagans are depicted somewhat sympathetically, albeit as doomed effete slave-owners failing to keep up with the times. The film reserves its real venom for its portrayal of the dark-age Christians, suggesting them to be an Al-Qaeda-like band of unreasonable zealots hypnotized by bad thinking, and unhindered by doubt or self-exploration.
I'm fascinated that a movie was made this way. The Christians are clad in black, and their visual heaviness contrasts with the light and airy scenes of Pagan culture and society. They are shown to be unspeakably brutal in their attacks on the Pagans and their library, and later in a pogrom against the Jews of Alexandria. They call the scrolls in the library "Pagan filth" and considerable time is devoted to showing their disdain for any knowledge outside the word of God revealed in the Bible. I can't imagine a film like this being made in the United States.
The film's antihero is Davus, the slave -- later freed slave -- of Hypatia, whose bonds draw him to the social justice and charity promised by the Christians, but who ends up becoming a fanatical killer. Which, with no particular animus to my Christian friends, pretty much sums up the tragedy that religion seems to often bring upon itself when it overly dominates the public square (literally what "Agora" means). While this allegorical film casts its harshest eye on ancient Christianity, I do like to point out that Tibet, home to the peace-loving altruism of Buddhism, was home to a particularly aggressive military/feudal social structure replete with slavery abolished only midway through the last century. I'm equally certain the story of medieval Nigeria, where my Yoruba/Santeria tradition is rooted, is an unlovely tale of feudalism and slave trading.
In the end one must assume that director Amenábar is defending all manner of secularism against religious dogma; and that his allegorical portrayal of the Roman Empire on the cusp of the dark ages is meant to be a warning for our own times. The spiritual/religious person in me can only sharply agree. For if spirituality can unlock the world's most intimate secrets and bring comfort, fulfillment and peace to individuals and communities, history teaches us that it must remain separated from governance.